Remembering the Princess Musicals
Have any of you heard of “The Princess Musicals”? I am not speaking of the Disney musicals on Broadway featuring princesses as the show’s heroine, but rather a short-lived series of musicals that played at Manhattan’s Princess Theatre between 1915 and 1919. These intimate musical comedies would prove to be influential in shaping the future of musical comedy on Broadway. Taking a step away from the big-budget spectacles, musical revues, and operettas that were popular in the day, The Princess Musicals would take a different approach: youthful, exuberant musicals performed on a much smaller scale, manageably-sized to fit the 299 seat venue and its limited stage space. They would also be an early attempt at integrating the score with plot, though not as effectively as would be achieved with musicals such as Show Boat, Pal Joey, Lady in the Dark, and Oklahoma! further down the road.
The idea for the Princess Musicals began with literary agent Elizabeth Marbury and theatre owner F. Ray Comstock who wanted the series to be an opportunity to showcase new composers with pieces performed in repertory, and with a resident company of actors. Though their vision for a repertory company would not be realized, they did create a scenario for successful, smaller musicals that were both contemporary and appealing. The first of the Princess Musicals was a short-lived piece with music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Schuyler Greene, and a book by Guy Bolton. A story of mistaken identity and young lovers put in comedic situations, Nobody Home (1915) proved corny and forgettable. Adapted from a British musical called Mr. Popple Of Ippleton, some of the musical numbers from the source material were retained.
The real success of the Princess Musicals started with the second installment, Very Good Eddie (1915), with Kern (again) providing the music, Greene and Herbert Reynolds penning the lyrics, and Bolton with Philip Bartholomae (based on Bartholomae’s farce Over Night) writing the book. The story: three couples aboard a day cruise on the Hudson River, comedy ensuing when two of the couples accidentally change partners. Just a trifle naughty and brimming with riotous comedy, Very Good Eddie ran an impressive 341 performances, which in 1915 was a an unqualified hit.
The second Princess Musical was an even bigger success. Oh, Boy!, which ran 463 performances, reunited Kern and Bolton (as lyricist and book writer) and added P.G. Wodehouse (of the “Wooster and Jeeves” stories) contributing to the book and lyrics. The musical, set on Long Island, follows elopement of George and Lou Ellen and the couple’s attempt to win over his family following their recent nuptials.
Leave it to Jane was slated to be the next Princess Musical, but thanks to Oh Boy’s success, had to be opened in a different theatre. Despite its alternative venue, Leave it to Jane is often considered an honorary Princess Musical because it held to the constructs and team that defined the series. Kern, Bolton and Wodehouse all returned. Not as big a hit as Very Good Eddie and Oh, Boy! but somehow more enduring!, Leave it to Jane (167 performances) did manage a handful of hit songs for the writing team, with the title song and “Cleopatterer” particularly successful. The musical was based on the George Ade play The College Widow. The story set the standard for the “college musical” cliché of rivaling football teams and the player from one university falling in love with a girl from the other.
The final Kern/Bolton/Wodehouse musical to play at the Princess Theatre, thus ending the streak of lighting that had made the series a success, was Oh, Lady! Lady! (1918). Running for 219 performances, Oh, Lady! Lady! was another farcical piece, this time concerning a wedding where the groom’s ex- fiancéeshow’s up and must be convinced that they were never meant to be together.
After the success of the Kern/Bolton/WodehousePrincess Musicals, Louis Hirsch took over as composer for the next venture Oh, My Dear! (1918), and though it was popular (189 performances), the magic of the Princess productions seemed to be fading. The final Princess offering was Toot Sweet (1919), a musical revue that lasted only 45 performances. Audiences clearly missed the Kern/Bolton/Wodehouse formula and the series concluded.
Dorothy Parker wrote of the Princess Musicals in 1918: “Well, Bolton and Wodehouse and Kern have done it again. Every time these three gather together, the Princess Theatre is sold out for months in advance. You can get a seat for Oh, Lady! Lady!! somewhere around the middle of August for just about the price of one on the stock exchange. If you ask me, I will look you fearlessly in the eye and tell you in low, throbbing tones that it has it over any other musical comedy in town. But then Bolton and Wodehouse and Kern are my favorite indoor sport. I like the way they go about a musical comedy. ... I like the way the action slides casually into the songs. ... I like the deft rhyming of the song that is always sung in the last act by two comedians and a comedienne. And oh, how I do like Jerome Kern's music. And all these things are even more so in Oh, Lady! Lady!! than they were in Oh, Boy!”
The Princess Musicals are historically significant for laying the groundwork for musical comedy that would inspire and influence the likes of Rodgers and Hart, The Gershwins, and Cole Porter. They were a step toward what would define modern musical comedy. Kern would go on to far-more substantial projects as a composer, but it was the Princess Musicals that gave him the platform to test some innovations that would be more fully-explored when he was paired with Oscar Hammerstein, II.